March 9, 2022, the day that sealed South Korea’s fate for the next five years. Citizens elected their thirteenth president through a popular voting system as Lee Jae-Myung from the Democratic Party faced off against the People Power Party’s candidate and newly elected president, Yoon Seok-Youl. However, high disapproval ratings and uncredible smear campaigns waged by both sides, dubbed this race the “unlikeable election” as two inexperienced candidates fought for the future of Korea. The new rise of political polarization and populist tendencies have led to an insidious, yet subtle, process of democratic erosion never seen in Korea’s democratic history.
1987 was a symbolic year for Korea, abandoning authoritarian rule for an introductory procedural democracy. At first sight, Korea’s new government closely mimicked Seymour Lipset’s Social Requisites of Democracy theory. Rapid industrialization in the 1960s created the increased consolidation of wealth and knowledge shortly before democratic values were introduced. The rise of social mobility and democratic attitudes among citizens warned the ruling military power that their autocratic end was near. With only three decades of democratic governance, Korea is still beset with remnants of military rule, lacking the systematic inclusion of societal actors to fully stabilize and consolidate their democracy. Over time, these neglected gaps of governance have come to light, with this previous election showing more discrepancies than ever.
Korea’s previous anti-democratic President Park Geun Hye, serving from 2013-2017, was extremely corrupt. She engaged in influence-peddling and was indicted on charges of bribery, abuse of power, coercion, and leaking government secrets in 2016. This scandal fueled mass protests as many physically expressed their disdain for Park’s actions. Korea’s democratic legitimacy reached an all-time low as citizens lost faith in the future of their country in the face of corruption.
However, Hye’s succeeding President Moon Jae-In vowed to correct Korea’s Democracy, providing a beacon of hope to anxious citizens. While Korea’s government has since stabilized under President Moon’s counsel, fears of executive aggrandizement and revenge politics could be found throughout his presidency. Moon’s prevalent use of zero-sum politics has demonized and punished opposition, creating a hyperpolarized civic society pinning the general population against the elite.
The current presidential race faces a weak Korean society that severely lacks political trust, rationality, and voter motivation. Both parties’ campaigns display dangerous demagogue and populist tendencies by perceiving opposition as a moral threat, weaponizing communication and using the media to appeal to subjective beliefs.
Korea’s televised debates have given a platform for both candidates to target each other rather than examine administration plans to reform the future of Korea. Korea’s presidential debate that took place on February 21, 2022 consisted of Democratic candidate Lee exposing leaked transcripts, potentially tying rival candidate Yoon to an ongoing national scandal. This comes after Yoon attacked Lee for his suspected misuse of corporate funds for personal gain during Lee’s years as Gyeonggi Province’s governor. Although neither party’s accusations have been proven true, this present dangerous demagogic culture has demonized each candidate, swaying public opinion with the intent of increasing personal gain. This, in turn, affects how citizens interact with information and opposition in a post-truth era, reinforcing political tribalism in civil society.
Furthermore, the candidate’s resurfacing political conflict between the homogeneous “good” and homogeneous “evil” displayed two defining features of modern populism: anti-pluralism and anti-elitism. Anti-pluralism refers to the rejection of coexistence with various political parties and institutions. Anti-elitism refers to just that, attacking the elite and opposing their attitudes with the intention of appealing and bolstering support amongst the “ordinary people.” Each candidate has been observed publicly accusing one another of representing and protecting the “elite” through methods of corruption and underlying abuses of power. In turn, the projection of these subjective claims onto the candidate’s supporters, by their very own candidate, emphasizes voter manipulation and dishonesty at the hands of both parties.
The road ahead does not seem optimistic or certain for Korea’s democracy. The apparent existence of democratic backsliding through populism and hyperpolarization, threatens the livelihood of Korea’s democracy. It is crucial for citizens and politicians to proactively demand a change to Korea’s procedural democracy, especially with the increased presence of corrupt politicians. The role of a conscious citizen is more important than ever before. That is, the proactive role of citizens who directly create and uphold democratic values is needed to save South Korea. The demand of a more transparent and accountable government, including those who choose to run for office, will give citizens the power to monitor power and expose corrupt tendencies when detected.
The importance of tolerance and coexistence is needed to alleviate the tension of Korea’s hyperpolarized political system. Civil Education should teach citizens to accept disagreement and diversity. After all, democracy is most successful when parties cooperate and compromise by “agreeing to disagree” on issues. Candidates and citizens must honor democracy’s values of mutual toleration and forbearance to re-legitimize opponents and avoid further authoritarian measures.
For many citizens, this election was about avoiding the worst candidate rather than choosing the most democratically appealing. The hope in Korea’s new president to restore democracy is slim. It is up to citizens to pursue social integration and enforce democratic principles in the wake of the storm. Inaction will result in an unbearable cost for Korea’s citizens and future.